Whether you’ve just recently unpacked here or you’ve been around the city for decades, there are plenty of reasons for calling New York City home. Of course almost all New Yorkers would agree that theirs is a dichotomous love/hate relationship with the city. For all of the wonderful benefits—the cultural opportunities, the interesting jobs, the people, the music, the food, even the feeling of being in the center of it all—there are just as many negative aspects that oftentimes seem enough to drive one right out of town. The city’s ecological health is rarely, if ever, considered one of its stronger points. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t have moments of disgust over the city’s assault on its own ecology, let alone its impact on global systems. From the mountains of waste that linger on the streets to the dirty air that hangs so low over the heat absorbent summer streets, there’s quite a bit to grow weary of.
Fortunately we live in a time when more and more efforts are being made to redeem the city with regards to its relationship with the natural world and a wider encompassing ecosystem. While the urban “sustainability movement” in this country might have its domestic roots on the West Coast, New Yorkers are waking up to this trend and an abundance of progressive politicians, entrepreneurs, activists and citizens alike are starting to truly bring about some wonderful changes. In the actions of these conscientious New Yorkers—in their policy shifts and public services, their educational movements and private decisions—we find a veritable catalog of diverse ingredients that make up the slow but steady process of New York City’s greening.
Why Go Green? Closing the Circuit of Linear Consumption and Waste Production
Timothy Beatley wrote in Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities that “the first and most obvious thing about cities is that they are like organisms, sucking in resources and emitting wastes.” His analogy is worth considering carefully. For once we recognize New York City as being an organism in its own right, it’s easier to understand that the decisions made and the actions taken locally affect the overall health of our hometown. Expanding the analogy to a larger scale and considering the enormity of our organism compared to others around the world, it also becomes appallingly clear that our behavior will definitely affect the well-being of others. As depicted in Saul Steinberg’s famous cover for the New Yorker, “A View of the World From Ninth Avenue”—in which the bird’s eye view looking west doesn’t show much beyond the Hudson, only undifferentiated space peppered haphazardly with New Jersey, Chicago, Utah, and the Pacific Ocean, a thin band cradling tiny bumps of land, Asia folks here certainly have the reputation of indifference to the world outside of the five boroughs. But residents of this city are proving more and more frequently that they are concerned with the overall health and well-being of the world. And here you are, reading this book, living proof.
To elaborate on Beatley’s analogy for a moment: considering that resources such as food, water, and energy from non-renewable resources are finite, the more of these resources that New York City as a whole consumes, the less there are available for others outside of this metropolis. Conversely, the more waste that New York City puts out into the world (hardly any of which, it is worth noting, remains here within the city limits), the less space there is for the waste of others. The reigning model for a city’s system of resource consumption and waste production is a linear one. Input resources; output waste. Energy, food, water, and miscellaneous materials come in; trash and pollution goes out. It’s becoming clear to environmentalists, social thinkers, and urban planners alike that this linear system is an inefficient and eventually dangerous one. By reducing the intakes and outputs from an organic system such as a city, the circuit of resource use is drawn in, tightening towards a circular state of ultimate sustainability. The benefits of working towards a more circular system are obvious on a local, regional, and even global scale. By reducing dependence on others, a city can put itself in a position to be not only healthier from an ecological standpoint, but also in terms of quality of life and economics.
A quick example: The dangerous heat and extended drought of the summer of 2002 served as an uncomfortable reminder to many New Yorkers that climate and weather are still beyond our control. People throughout the city bemoaned Global Warming and climate change during that oppressive spell. A logical result should have been a widespread, lifestyle-altering movement that emphasized water conservation and a conscious campaign against the overuse and abuse of automobiles and energy sources that produce excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principle greenhouse gas. Unfortunately, New Yorkers’ memories are short and we tend to focus less on the past and future, rather concerning ourselves more with comfort in the present moment. Per capita water use has fallen, but only slightly, and the city’s energy demands are higher than ever.
Just as there are no ecologically autonomous organisms, completely closing this circuit of intake and output is an impossible undertaking in any city�let alone one as enormous and cosmopolitan as New York. All will consume resources from outside of their own system and will produce some sort of waste. When organisms live harmoniously with one another�without competing so radically for limited resources�an ecological balance is attained. Thus, reducing resource consumption and wasteful output should be of paramount concern. Sustainability, from a human standpoint, is reached when an activity or a system can be sustained over the long term, without harming, degrading, or diminishing the conditions�environmental, economic, or other�necessary to support those same activities or systems. In terms of New York City, this means consuming less energy and resources while emitting less pollution and waste.
Nowhere on Earth could a change in attitude have such profound, wide reaching effects. Aside from being America’s most populous city, New York’s role as a global business, cultural, and diplomatic hub puts it forever in the world’s spotlight. Any shifts in cultural or lifestyle trends here, will be recognized by cosmopolitan centers the world over. They will also be hailed and trumpeted by environmentalists everywhere. To tamper with Old Blue Eyes’ famous ode: if we can fix it here, we can fix it anywhere.
But cultural attitudes shift slowly. And the major predicament is this: green living in New York City isn’t terribly easy. Or, if you’ll pardon another paraphrase, I give you Kermit: “It ain’t easy living green.” At the very least, it’s seldom convenient. Separating recyclables is space consuming and labor intensive if you’ve got a small apartment on the fifth floor of a walkup. Ordering delivery is easier than preparing your own meal. Surviving a New York City August without an air conditioner is considered by many to be impossible. But many New Yorkers are refusing to live within these seductively convenient, restrictive paradigms of behavior. They are more than willing to put in a bit of extra time and effort to ensure that the decisions made and the actions taken contribute to the health, rather than the detriment, of the local and global environment.
Furthermore, working towards a more sustainable life here in New York City can be as rewarding as it is productive and positive. Who wouldn’t prefer an open, smooth riverside bike path to an FDR traffic jam? Or a sweet, succulent peach plucked that very week from a local orchard to one from a can? Who wouldn’t prefer cleaner air and cleaner water and cleaner streets? A greener life is a better life.
This book aims to be a practical, useful guide. Some of the tips concepts for arriving at this greener life you may already know, but many may come as sweet surprises. I invite you to peruse these pages, consider the ideas, strategies, and programs contained therein, so that you may develop your own personal strategy for bringing a greener shade to life here in this wonderful city of New York.
The Big Green Apple is henceforth divided into four main sections, each representing an important aspect of life here in New York City�home, food, transportation, and work and recreation. The first chapter, “A Greener Apple Begins at Home,” will look at the energy and resource demands of a typical New York City home, considering a variety of ways to lower their environmental impacts. It will focus on issues such as lighting, appliance use, water consumption, climate control, and waste management. “The Green Plate Special” will discuss some of the hidden environmental costs of eating, like the industrialized agricultural complex’s ever-increasing dependence on ecosystem-threatening pesticides, unnatural growth supplements and antibiotics, energy-intensive shipping processes, and a score of other environmental unsound food production practices. Sensible, eco-friendly alternatives available right here in the city will then be offered. Much has been written and reported about the harmful effects of gasoline-powered vehicles. In “Gettin’ Around Green,” a number of viable alternatives to the impractical and heavily polluting automobile will be discussed, as will the rewards of using these alternative forms of transportation. Finally, “Work Green, Play Green” will focus your external city life�from the office to stores to city parks. It will include a chapter on greening your workplace, and another on turning your shopping excursions�for pleasure or obligation�into an environmentally redeeming activity. Also included is advice on how to best get outside and more actively involved both in and for the city’s open space and environment, with descriptions of and ruminations on the city’s elaborate parks system, information about green friendly special events, and profiles of organizations whose services and programs you can take advantage of or who you can work with for the betterment of New York’s ecological health. Finally, an appendix to The Big Green Apple will offer a comprehensive directory of contact information for groups, organizations, and businesses who share the ultimate goal of a greener New York City, one that is not only more environmentally friendly, but also a better citizen of the world.
Then without further delay, it’s time to take a good look at the organism that is New York City, and to consider the great number of ways that you can work to help it truly become The Big Green Apple.